DAVID LEE attempts to take an interest in a forty-year old artistic institution
Not that it’s much fun remembering, but can it really have been more than 40 years ago that, like a new comet, the British Art Show (Arts Council prop.) first swam into our ken? It’s been coming back to haunt us every five years since, and now here it is again, ninth time round and laden as ever with empty promises and disappointment. Do we mind? No, not that much, for minding even mildly requires the taking of at least a little serious interest in the first place, which no one really does these days, and small wonder. I most certainly don’t – as the blank space in the index to Moping On – the Collected Works (rejection slip pending) amply testifies. I did see BAS8, or was it number 7, but, whichever, only out of convenient and idle curiosity. Remembering the faintest of anything in it is quite another matter: blur doesn’t come near it.
The pity is that it did seem quite a good idea, back in that Golden Age of Wislon, Sunny Jim and Dolly Scargill, oh, so long ago. It was the brainchild of one Frank Constantine, benign and enterprising director of the Sheffield City Art Galleries at the time – and in his youth, a seriously fast opening bowler, I believe, and a stylish middle-order batsman too: though I may be thinking of someone else – who, feeling that too little of the best and brightest of contemporary British art was ever to be seen north of Hampstead, persuaded the Arts Council to commission a major touring show, every so often, of just such stuff but one which – and this is the nub and very heart of the matter – would never, as it were, be seen in Town.
The guiding premise, as I remember, was that it should offer a generous if idiosyncratic overview of whatever of interest or merit, preferably both, had been produced within the previous two or three years, sought across the full field of current engagement in painting and sculpture and allied trades. Furthermore, there were two defining conditions attached: first, that the selection should be entrusted to a single selector; and second, that practical or logistical constraints apart, the choice was to remain a personally accountable judgement quite free of any policy or pressure on the Council’s part. Independence was the rubric, and, mirabile dictu, so it was: Amen to that, I hear you cry.
In the event, work by just over 100 artists was shown, from unabashed representation to abstraction at its most minimal and austere, with a leavening of conceptualism for good measure. There was of course the usual hullabaloo. ‘My child could do better than that, or would be severely punished if he didn’t’, of course, and ‘what a waste of good wood and canvas’. Sheffield’s steel mills closing down on a daily basis hardly helped. Even the Arts Council’s own General Secretary at the time – a worthy Yorkshireman from Sheffield called Shaw, which explains a lot – after giving it the honour of a single sentence in his annual report, with due emphasis laid upon how much it had cost, a little later condemned out of hand an exhibition he had never seen.
And so of course the Arts Council lost its nerve. A single selector? Goodness no, far too risky. From BAS2 it has always been a committee job, if only one of two or three. And since no self-respecting committee meets without an agenda, so by grandmother’s footsteps themes and policies, the more correct the better, crept in and for many years now the Arts Council’s cold hand has been firmly on the tiller. Which dire conclusion brings me back to how boring and correct in its self-congratulatory diversity it all now is.
BAS9, selected by Irene Aristizaval and Hammad Nasar, began its tour in Aberdeen last autumn, and, having lately closed at Wolverhampton, is now inflicting itself on Manchester before moving on to Plymouth for the coup de grâce. A brief account of its sojourn amongst the Wolverhamptonians may offer the ever-patient denizens of Manchester some idea of what they’re in for.
Irene, now Head of Curatorial and Public Practice at the BALTIC, Gateshead, was until lately Head of Exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary; while Hammad is Lead Curator at the Herbert Gallery, Coventry, Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Foundation, and Principal Research Fellow at the University of the Arts (Central St Martin’s as was), London. You have been warned.
Notable amongst Irene’s recent group shows have been ‘Still I Rise – Feminism, Gender Resistance, and Photography from the Civil Rights Movement to the Reagan Era’. And Hammad is known, you may be intrigued to learn, ‘for collaborative, research-driven and exhibition-led inquiry’ so quite the Renaissance Man. His recent successes include ‘Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition and Structures of Meaning / Architectures of Perception’. There was also ‘Excessive Enthusiasm: Ha Bik Chuen and the Archives of Practice’. And I’m sorry I missed his ‘Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space’. You get the picture, or perhaps not as the case may be.
Getting down to brass tacks – for which I believe the town was once renowned – Irene and Hammad said with one voice ‘how thrilled they were to present the second iteration (and how we love that ‘iteration’) of BAS9 in Wolverhampton’, where the focus was to be ‘on an intersectional approach to living with difference’. Their approach would ‘foreground (and here I find myself reaching by reflex for the red pen – Old Beaky would have reached for something else) the contemporary resonance of the Black Lives Matter protests with the historic context of Enoch Powell infamous (notorious?) and divisive “rivers of blood speech”.’ Oh dear: but on we go.
Taken over all, BAS9 ‘explores [of course it does] themes of healing, care and reparative history; tactics for togetherness; and imagining new futures,’ and I can’t wait for the mug of cocoa and a digestive biscuit afterwards, for which I’ve already chipped in my two and six. It ‘showcases [I shall run out of red ink soon] the multidisciplinary work of 47 artists, reflecting a precarious moment in British history, which has brought politics of identity and nation, concerns of social, racial and environmental justice, and questions of agency (??) to the centre of public consciousness.’ Yes, My Dears, so it does, and calm down, as the great Sir Michael might have said: for my part I would remind you this was once, and perhaps still is, supposed to be an art exhibition, not a public meeting in the Islington Oddfellows Hall. Where’s that cocoa, for goodness sake? But there’s no stopping yet.
In Wolverhampton, it seems, the focus was on ‘how we live with and give voice to difference, showcasing [Damn and blast: I’ve now stubbed the nib] only those 34 of the 47 whose work, steely eyed, forensically investigates identity from an intersectional perspective (ouch). By exploring, map and compass at the ready, coexisting identities such as class, [count to ten] ethnicity [slowly] gender [up to 20] and sexuality [now 30], works will be presented in critical dialogue with Wolverhampton’s cultural history shaped by the diverse populations that have arrived since the War.’ Of course they will: but I’m too old for all this. I it is who really must calm down.
This article first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.
DAVID LEE is the editor of The Jackdaw, an independent journal of the visual arts